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Prison Litigation Reform Act – Prison Overcrowding Oversight

Brown v. Plata, USSC No. 09-1233, 5/23/11

Remedial injunction, issued by a federal court pursuant to the PLRA, ordering California to reduce its prison population on account of deficiencies in medical care caused by overcrowding, upheld.

Lengthy, 5-4 opinion (91 pp. pdf file) on something (“conditions of confinement”) outside the boundaries of SPD representation: why should you be interested? For one thing, as On Point readership surveys have demonstrated time and again over the years, you have a deep and abiding interest in matters of social policy beyond the narrow confines of your own forensic skills. And for another, as luck would have it, you might very well put this decision to use on behalf of some given client – luck being in the form of the recently decided State v. Harbor, 2011 WI 28, which paves the way to arguing declining health or even inadequate medical care as a new factor supporting sentence modification. To be sure, nothing in Plata is directly relevant to sentence modification litigation; you will have to decide for yourself whether it contains any nuggets for you to mine.

As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty.  Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights.  Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.  Respect for  that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  “ ‘The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.’ ”  Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 311 (2002) (quoting  Trop v.  Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 100 (1958) (plurality opinion)).

To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs.   Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’ ”  Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97, 103 (1976) (quoting  In re Kemmler,  136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890)); see generally A.Elsner, Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons(2004).  Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or shemay suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care.  A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical  care, is incompatible  with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.

If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting EighthAmendment violation. …

… The State’s desire to avoid a population limit, justified  as according respect to state authority, creates a certain and unacceptable risk of continuing violations of the rights of sick and mentally ill prisoners, with the result that many more will die or needlessly suffer.  The Constitution does not permit this wrong.

If the Constitution compels release of a broad group of prisoners because of inadequate care, would a judge have discretion to fashion that remedy for a single inmate, given the right circumstances?

On an entirely separate, purely policy point – the public safety angle – the following passage might hold some interest:

The three-judge court credited substantial evidence thatprison populations can be reduced in a manner that does not increase crime to a significant degree.  Some evidence indicated that reducing overcrowding in California’s prisons could even improve public safety.   Then-Governor Schwarzenegger, in his emergency proclamation on overcrowding, acknowledged that “ ‘overcrowding causes harm to people and property, leads to inmate unrest and misconduct, . . . and increases recidivism as shown within this state and in others.’ ”  Juris. App. 191a–192a.  The former warden of San Quentin and acting secretary of the California prison system testified that she “ ‘absolutely believe[s] that we make  people worse, and that we are not meeting public safety by the way we treat people.’ ”10 Id., at 129a.  And the head of Pennsylvania’s correctional system testified that measures to reduce prison population may “actually improve on public safety because they address the problems that brought people to jail.”  Tr. 1552– 1553.

Expert witnesses produced  statistical evidence that prison populations had been lowered without adversely affecting public safety in a number of jurisdictions, including certain counties in California, as well  as Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Florida, and Canada. Juris. App. 245a.11 Washington’s former secretary of corrections testified that his State had  implemented population reduction methods, including parole reform and expansion of good time credits, without any “deleterious effect on crime.”  Tr. 2008–2009.  In  light of this evidence, the  three-judge court concluded that any negative impact on public safety would be “substantially offset, and perhaps entirely eliminated, by the public safety benefits” of a reduction in overcrowding.  Juris. App. 248a.

The court found that various available methods of reducing overcrowding would have little or no impact on public safety. Expansion of good-time credits would allow the State to give early release to only those prisoners who pose the least risk of reoffending. Diverting low-risk offenders to community programs such as drug treatment,day reporting centers, and  electronic monitoring would likewise lower the prison population without releasing violent convicts.12  The State now sends large numbers of persons to prison for violating a technical term or condition of their parole, and it could reduce the prison population by punishing technical parole violations through community-based programs.  This  last measure would be particularly beneficial as it would reduce crowding in the reception centers, which are especially hard  hit by overcrowding.  See  supra,  at 23–24.  The court’s order took account of public safety concerns by giving the State substantial  flexibility to select among these and other means of reducing overcrowding.

See also Michael O’Hear’s analysis, comparing Wisconsin to Minnesota incarceration rates:

What is striking here, besides the imprisonment disparity, is an even more marked disparity in the probation population going the other direction.  In fact, it turns out that Minnesota has far more total people under criminal-justice supervision than Wisconsin.  The difference is that Minnesota keeps its offenders in the community, while Wisconsin sends its offenders to prison.  Interestingly, it does not appear that these tendencies result in materially higher crime rates in Minnesota; in fact, Minnesota’s violent crime rate is slightly below Wisconsin’s.

For a different view, see Kent Scheidegger, who thinks a Mad Max-Apocalypse of murder, rape and robbery is about to be visited on California:

What is the message for law-abiding people in California?  Buy a gun.  Get a dog.  Put in an alarm system.  Even seriously consider bars on the windows.

Oh, and don’t bother investing much in a car.  It will be open season on cars given that car thieves (“nonviolent offenders”) will never go to prison no matter how many times they are caught.

On Point is reminded of discussion of the post-Gideon recidivism rate (“Among Gideon-released prisoners, the rate of recidivism (return to crimes) was only 13.6%, as compared with 25.4% among other Florida prisoners released when their sentences expired normally”), but we are now far afield from the potential implications of this decision on sentence modification practice and will leave it there.

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